Dusk had fallen long ago and a cold biting sea breeze was humming a sweet melody as the sea waves crashed on the formidable sea wall of Georgetown. It was almost pitching dark. Martin sat on the sea wall looking at the incoming waves laughing under the yellow tail of the moon hidden behind a dark curtain of clouds. He walked slowly on the broad edges of the wall, watching little boys hauling a seine along the shallow shore line. White egrets nibbled at shrimps in the salty mud holes on the broken mud flats, lovers passed by holding hands in the thin whisper of rain. He kept a lonely vigil on the opposite shore, like a sentinel. He watched as the rising tide began to make inroads into the beach as the sharp tail of the wind lashed his back.
Martin loved reading but hated school. He hated the tedious studies of Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry and Geography but valued and appreciated English Literature, History, Latin and Greek Literature. His first love was poetry. He read voraciously almost all the classic books of literature and Latin poets in the library of Queens College which he was attending. He would sit for long hours on the sea wall in the afternoon reading Shakespeare and watching the red sun going down over the mouth of the river. Reading and writing were his main interests in life, but for him to write he needed more than just an idea. He needed facts, observations and inspirations that would capture the attention of his readers. Poetry was his intention. He believed poetry had a special message to help every human soul realise that life is about purpose and we must have a dream to achieve our goals for a better tomorrow.
The clouds were getting darker and darker and the sea breeze blew heavily as if a great storm was coming to Georgetown. The moon hid her gorgeous face behind the thick blanket of dark clouds and a few stars shed their tears over the boisterous Atlantic Ocean. Martin was getting tired sitting on the hard concrete sea wall where he meditated and wrote his poems in a little notebook he carried around like the English poet Shelley. Shelley was one of his favourite poets but died very young. Martin always cogitated deeply about the mystery of life and death and wondered if he would die young like the poets Keats, Byron and Shelley. Most of the great poets were captivated by the mystery of life and death, love, nature, romance and metaphysics, but most wrote at length about death and that petrified Martin at times.
The strong wind blew away the dark clouds and the moon climbed the roof of the skies again, shining her brilliant light on the brown shore line where the sea water retreated to a different shore. Martin stared at hundreds of red, blue, black and grey crabs marching in single file along the broad muddy shore line. Crabs fascinated him; he wondered at their intelligence and was intrigued by the way they march like soldiers, building their houses on the mud flats by digging deep holes into the muddy streams. Ants were another phenomenon that captivated his attention. He won a contest once by writing about his life in an essay called The Day of an Ant.
‘Martin, Martin,’ someone called.
‘Who is it?’ his voice echoed on the sea waves.
‘It’s me David, your brother.’
David was his eldest brother and was studying to become a lawyer. Martin was very close to his heart but David felt Martin was wasting his time reading and writing poetry. He came for Martin on his new Raleigh bicycle since only a few aristocrats owned a car in those British Colonial days.
‘Martin it’s been several hours since you left home. It’s nine-thirty, Mom will be mad at you.’
Martin sat on the bike’s inner bar as his brother rode slowly on the bumpy brick road. He was silent while David lectured him. He didn’t utter a word because he respected and loved his brother as the eldest of his four brothers and two sisters.
They reached home at ten o’clock. His father, Mr. James Carter, was reading on their big verandah facing the sea wall. His father was the principal of Bishops High School and a well-respected man in his community because of his intelligence, integrity and staunch Roman Catholic background. His father realised that Martin was home.
‘Please come here Martin.’ He spoke in a baritone voice with a strong English accent.
Martin was afraid and stood before him wondering if he would be whipped for his recalcitrant behaviour. His father dropped his thick glasses over his nose and glanced at him like an eagle contemplating its victim.
‘Where were you all these hours?’ he continued.
‘Reading and writing on the sea wall,’ Martin stammered.
‘Are you trying to be Shakespeare boy? Poetry writing is for lazy idiots!’
Martin was infuriated by his father’s sarcastic remarks. He stood speechless, wondering if he really was the principal of a high school or a person of no intellect.
‘I want you to be a lawyer and follow in the footsteps of David your eldest brother,’ he demanded.
‘I want to be a poet. That’s what I think I am born to be and no one can change that,’ Martin spoke, trembling.
‘This country Guyana is hard boy, we are ruled by the British people. They control the press and publishing industry. Writing poetry, even if you be a journalist, is not a lucrative career. Think to fill your guts with food or you starve to death.’
‘Okay Dad, I will continue my GCE studies at Queens College and still write poetry.’
‘You have about two years more in high school; what will you do after school?’
‘I can’t think of anything yet, Dad.’
‘Think while you are young or you can just be the next labourer in the cane fields.’
‘Martin, Martin, please come for your dinner,’ his mother Joan called.
His mother was of mixed races, Amerindian, African and East Indian, very tall and immaculately dressed in her night robe. She was very annoyed at her husband because she wanted her children to create their own destiny and follow their dreams. She never wanted her children to follow the same career the way James wanted Martin to follow David to be a lawyer. She was widely read and taught Martin to read the literary classics since she loved poetry and literature but couldn’t work because of her seven children. She believed in Martin’s poetry and kept it away from her arrogant husband.
‘Please don’t interrupt me woman when I am speaking to Martin,’ his vociferous father retorted.
‘It’s time for his dinner, I think you spoke enough,’ his mother replied with a very angry look on her face.
‘You can go Martin and waste your life with them stupid poetry, only lazy people writing poetry,’ he laughed.
Martin ate his dinner, very confused about his future after he left school. He realised his father meant well since he wanted him to enter the right profession to earn enough money to take care of a family when he became a man and entered the real world of work. Then he thought of his girlfriend Joyce Singh who was aspiring to be a medical doctor. He tried to compare the financial status of a doctor and a poet and came to the conclusion that poverty awaited him as a poet and writer unless he wrote the best poetry and fiction and won some Nobel Prize in Literature. His dreams lay broken like the fragments of sea shells on the bone white beach.
‘Well I can write and probably be a school teacher of English Literature and Latin but I may never marry my beloved doctor,’ he said aloud to himself.
Vivid imaginations filled his thoughts like lightning striking a light pole. His mind ran away from his imagined destiny like a busy stream into the angry ocean. His father understood the politics of the time he lived in. Martin did not think like his father; he felt one day his country Guyana would gain independence and be free from British rule. He envisioned a country with fast cars, modern buildings and the internet, but that was just another hopeless dream that would come to pass probably after he was dead. He fell asleep. The cold wind blew silently through his bedroom window and a blackbird whistled a soft tune in the serenity of the ice-cold night.
Dawn came suddenly by the loud crow of a boisterous rooster sitting on Martin’s front step. The lazy sun peeped out from a distance; the Atlantic Ocean sang her morning anthem at the break of a lovely day. Martin read a few Psalms from his Bible and knelt by his bedside to pray. He believed in prayer and his Christian faith though he never fully understood it but tried to believe what he was taught by his parents and church priest Father Andrew Smith.
‘Martin! Martin!’ his father called.
‘Yes Dad?’ he replied with a lazy yawn.
‘Please don’t take my words to heart; I am concerned about your future.’
Martin felt relieved and imagined that God was probably working on his father’s ambiguous mind.
His mother was listening eagerly to what her pragmatic husband was saying to Martin.
‘Life is about choices boy, today’s choice is for your future tomorrow, whether it’s a good choice or bad choice. Just remember one thing. Most people’s problems in life are to do with making wrong choices. They guess their way through life and have no ambition, no goal, no vision.’
Martin and his mother were impressed by his father’s words. He seemed to be poetic and philosophical about life all of a sudden. Martin hated his father at times, but he really hated the idea of becoming a lawyer since he felt law is about lies and poetry is about truth in life lessons.
Martin dressed in his deep-brown khaki pants, white shirt and grey tie for school, along with David, who was in the sixth form and would shortly be completing his GCE’A levels examination. Queens College was the most prestigious college in Guyana and the wider Caribbean; only a few privileged students of impeccable intelligence were blessed to attend. Martin and his brother were on Regent Street walking to school. The sun was up in all her brilliance and burned angrily in the clear blue sky. Regent Street was very popular in Georgetown. It was broad and full of dust, lined with old houses dating from an archaic British Guyana of six races searching for their identity after it was stolen by colonial oppression. Only a few old Morris Oxford cars could be seen among the horse-drawn carts and occasional donkey cart. It was 1945, during World War Two, and British Guyana was just a speck in the global villages of the civilised world.
‘Why do you wish to study law David?’ Martin asked his eldest brother for the first time.
‘It was Dad’s idea.’
‘So what is your dream in life to become?’
‘Maybe I can be an engineer or doctor.’
David had already secured ten subjects at the GCE’O levels examination. He was studying another five for his A levels. Martin was very proud of his brother, contemplating in his mind if he would ever pass his own subjects since he hated examinations but had to live up to his family’s excellence in academic achievement.
‘You should study to be a doctor, law is an evil subject.’
‘What do you mean by evil? It’s a legal profession.’
‘I read some law books in our school library.’
‘Martin, you reading law, don’t make me laugh.’
‘It’s like this. If you are a lawyer and I killed a man, then you have to lie in court to defend me, and you have just become an accomplice to murder by defending a murderer just for money.’
‘Well, it’s what I am trained to do for defending criminals, it’s called criminal law.’
‘But there is nothing noble or honest in that. The same money criminals acquired from crime they will pay you with; that’s how you earn your blood money, evil money.’
David was consternated for a while at his younger brother’s lecture and thought to himself that Martin was right; to defend criminals and live in guilt is not noble or sincere.
‘You are absolutely correct Martin, I must compliment you for your admonition.’
‘I read in the papers of a reputable drug dealer who killed an entire family because they knew about his drug trade and could report him to the FBI. It happened in the United States. The same drug lord and murderer was set free by the High Court in Washington because he hired three top-class criminal lawyers. He will continue his drug trade and kill more families.’
‘I read it too Martin. It makes me think that the lawyers who defended the drug dealer caused more crime to spread into society, like an unending cancer.’
‘In Luke 11:46 Jesus said ‘Woe unto you, lawyers’. This verse is like a curse upon those in the legal profession.’
‘You sound like a preacher now boy, I have to read that for myself, I hardly read the Bible.’
‘You must read widely, read all you can put your hands on. Reading will make you a true scholar, not those certificates you have.’
David was inspired by his conversation with his younger brother, and for the first time in his life he felt true freedom to change his academic pursuit from law to medical science.
They arrived very early at school. The schoolyard was immaculate, the sweet smell from the kaleidoscopic flower garden perfumed the air as birds and bees sung songs of victory. Students were playing cricket under a gigantic tree. The long branches seemed to wave at the skies, and the colourful blossoms that hung like bunches of grapes were a paradise for birds like the macaw, egret, red robin, woodpecker, hawk and eagle. These were the elegant things of nature that inspired the young mind of Martin Carter. They would eventually be written down in his books of poetry and would shape the literati of Guyana and the wider Caribbean.
The school bell rang and Martin walked slowly to his classroom while the others came running. Before his first subject, the entire school had to stand and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Prayer was compulsory in all the schools, as was Christian theology. Latin and French were also taught to every student at Queens College to prepare students to read the classic books that were written in those languages. Martin sat behind his girlfriend Joyce. He assumed she was his girlfriend since they were close friends for the past four years. Joyce was an inspiration to him. She read his poetry and encouraged him to continue writing. She came from a very remote and rural Amerindian village in the upper Corentyne Berbice region called Kwakwani. She excelled all her contemporaries from that region in her Common Entrance Examination and was awarded a place to study at Queens College. She was living in Robb Street at her aunt’s residence, not very far from Martin’s residence in Regent Street. Joyce had five sisters but no brothers, she being the third sister. Her father was a factory manager at the Skeldon Sugar Estate and her mother was a housewife and shopkeeper earning an extra income to support her daughters’ academic pursuits. Joyce was studious and never wasted time playing. During recess she would complete her homework and read books. She was of East Indian decent, not very tall but very slim and beautiful. Her long elegant hair fascinated Martin, and her penetrating eyes plunged into Martin’s heart whenever she spoke to him with her soft voice. Some of Martin’s friends felt she was too studious to fall in love, or she was in love with her books and not Martin. Joyce didn’t attend school for romantic pleasure or amorous adventure. She encouraged her friends to concentrate on their studies instead of flirting with boys. She had strong Christian convictions, taught Sunday School and never missed the Sunday church service at St. George’s Cathedral in Georgetown.
A new teacher of English Literature introduced himself to Martin’s class. He was Mr. Basant Raj, neatly dressed in a light-grey shirt and brown bellbottom pants. He was East Indian, about six feet tall, and wore black-framed spectacles with very thick lenses. He wrote the lesson topic quickly on the blackboard: Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
‘My name is Mr. Basant Raj. I will be teaching you English Literature until you write the GCE exams.’
‘Sir, who is this William Shakespeare?’ Jason asked, though he knew who Shakespeare was.
‘William Shakespeare was the greatest poet and English playwright the world had ever known. He attended a Latin Grammar school as a boy but never studied at university, yet wrote the greatest poetry and plays that are still unmatched 400 years after his death.’
Mr. Raj’s eloquent lecture on Shakespeare’s life and literary works left an indelible impression on Martin and motivated him to write and read even more. He felt his journey as a poet and prose writer had just begun and saw that a university education was not necessary for one to be a writer if one is widely read. After classes he went to the school library to do some research and met Joyce there, reading and taking notes among other students. Students were given two hours after classes finished to do their research and homework since electricity was not yet in the country. He picked up an encyclopaedia and asked Joyce if he could sit next to her. She was very happy for his company.
‘I want to type your poems Martin, and send them to London to my uncle to publish,’ she spoke quickly while writing.
Martin was flabbergasted at what he was hearing, wondering why Joyce was so concerned about him. Joyce had a typewriter her uncle sent her from England and she was very good at typing.
‘I will give you my book of poems,’ he replied, looking worried.
‘My uncle Harry Singh works as an editor at Macmillan Publishers; if he likes your poetry they could publish it in a book.’
‘Why are you doing this for me?’
‘I like you as a friend and want to see you succeed in your writing since writing is all you can do.’
Martin felt a peace enter his heart at her kind words and knew that Joyce was meant to be with him forever. Joyce felt the same for Martin but didn’t show it. Martin retrieved his book of poems from his big leather school bag and gave it to Joyce. He had written over sixty poems in a variety of genres. Poems that expressed moral anger and outrage. Poems about corruption, love, religion and the metaphysical, rich in symbolism, philosophy and imagery.
‘I love these lines Martin: Death must not find us thinking that we die. I do not sleep to dream but dream to change the world.’
‘Thank you very much. You think my work can be published?’
‘You are the next Homer of the Caribbean Martin, your poetry is excellent. I’ve never liked poetry but your poems make me fall in love with you and them.’ In her anxiety she didn’t realise what she was saying.
‘You two love birds should become movie stars,’ Jason intruded suddenly upon their conversation. He was sitting a few yards away from them, listening.
Joyce blurted out a peal of laughter as the school bell rang, signalling time for all students to exit the library and leave school premises.
As they were leaving the library Joyce said to Jason, ‘You are a very funny guy Jason.’
‘I should write your love story. The story of the poet in love with his future doctor wife who turns editor and publisher.’
Martin and Joyce continued to laugh as they scampered home. Martin began to daydream about his published book and his unending love for Joyce. He rushed into the kitchen to find something to eat, still laughing. His mother never saw him laugh and was so happy. His curious father was looking at him, wondering if his son was drunk or losing his mind.
‘What got into you Martin? Why are you laughing so much?’
‘My book of poems might be published. My classmate Joyce is typing my poems, her uncle is an editor who works in a publishing company in London.’
His father started to laugh.
His mother was very serious since she was very concerned about Martin’s literary career. ‘You mean to tell me boy the East Indian girl from Berbice will do this for you?’
His father stepped into the kitchen and sat down to entertain himself with Martin’s tale. His mother was afraid of her husband but wanted to hear more from Martin.
‘Yes Mom. Joyce will send my work to London to see if it will be published.’
‘Boy, like I said before these poems will run you mad and now a Berbice girl! You’ll get more crazy. You’ll be out of school soon — get to your books and study. You have twelve subjects to pass, hope you don’t fail.’ His father walked away grumbling.
‘I believed in you Martin, just like your friend Joyce,’ his mother assured him.
Joyce typed his poems and brought them to Martin’s house on Saturday. She rode a bicycle painted red, blue and white. Martin’s mother invited her inside her beautiful home, contemplating her future daughter-in-law. James was not at home.
‘A pleasant good morning to you Aunty Joan. I typed Martin’s poems, which I will send to my uncle in London to see if he will publish them.’
‘So you are Joyce. Martin always talks about you. I thank you very much for your interest in my son’s poetry.’
‘I always like to help when I can, and Martin’s work is great. It will be published.’
‘You have a lot of faith Joyce. Please have some breakfast with us.’
Joyce felt at home. She missed her mother. She had typed two copies of Martin’s poetry manuscript and was sending one to her uncle with her nephew who was going to London for a vacation. She put her hands on the manuscript and prayed for the publisher to accept the poems for publication. Martin’s mother was moved by her gracious and spiritual personality and felt she was an angel sent to help Martin.
After six months, Joyce received a letter from the publisher. She rode her bike hurriedly to Martin’s house. In front of the entire family, Martin’s mother opened the letter and read it aloud.
Dear Martin Carter,
We are delighted to inform you that after reading your poetry manuscript ‘I Do Not Sleep to Dream’ we have decided to publish it. Please sign our enclosed contract and send it back to us as soon as possible.
We have enclosed a royalty advance of 300 pounds.
The family burst into tears, and Martin’s father even apologised to him. Joyce read the letter to herself over and over.
‘God answered your prayers for my son Joyce; please stay in this family and be our daughter-in-law.’
‘This family is now a part of my family,’ Joyce replied as she punched Martin’s chest.
Martin and Joyce graduated from Queens College, successfully passing all their GCE’O level subjects. Joyce began teaching at Bishops High School while waiting to receive a scholarship to study medicine. Martin was employed by the Chronicle News as a journalist and editor and was a visiting lecturer of poetry at the University of Guyana. Joyce encouraged Martin to send his work to various newspapers, and the newspapers published his poems and stories. She also encouraged him to enter poetry and essay contests, which he won from year to year. Martin’s work became recognised and even his father enjoyed reading his son’s poems, essays and stories in the newspapers. Martin was engaged to Joyce in a grand ceremony at St. George’s Cathedral. Joyce’s family came from Berbice to attend their daughter’s engagement. They were elated to learn that Joyce was engaged to the National Poet of Guyana.
Martin and Joyce sat on the Georgetown sea wall, looking at the sea and the little boys catching fish and crabs. The restless wind was blowing Joyce’s elegant long hair, the sun was going down slowly in the west and the sea waves were galloping quickly. A thin ribbon of rainbow was peeking out from under the grey lining of the joyful clouds. Martin kissed his future wife tenderly as the sea waves roared in laughter. A brown Morris Oxford car pulled up suddenly with a screech. Martin and Joyce were afraid, wondering if an accident had occurred. Martin’s mother and father jumped out of the car and gave Martin a telegram.
Congratulations Martin Carter, your book of poems ‘I Do Not Sleep to Dream’ is the winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Award.
Martin and Joyce held hands tightly and prayed as the golden moon winked at them.